From the time Adam offered sacrifices, the Lord’s prophets have known that God would send a Savior—the Messiah and Redeemer who would overcome the Fall and prepare the world for the kingdom of God. Indeed, a heavenly messenger explained to Adam the reason for sacrifice upon the altar:
“This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.
“Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore” (Moses 5:7–8).
The plan of salvation with Jesus Christ at its center has always been the message of the prophets. For example, Abinadi taught that, some 1,350 years before the Savior’s mortal birth, Moses prophesied to the Israelites concerning the Messiah’s coming. Abinadi added that “even all the prophets … have [thus] prophesied ever since the world began” (Mosiah 13:33; emphasis added). Some 550 years before the Savior’s birth, Nephi testified that “according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (2 Ne. 25:19). Later, Nephi’s brother Jacob also testified: “For, for this intent have we written these things [our testimonies], that they [our posterity] may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us” (Jacob 4:4; see also Hel. 8:22).
Prophets not only knew that the Messiah was “the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Ne. 11:21); they also knew that Jesus Christ was “the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning” (Mosiah 3:8; see also Mosiah 4:2) and that “the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it” (1 Ne. 17:36).
Some 1,700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament patriarch Jacob blessed his son Judah that his would be a posterity of kings. “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,” Jacob prophesied, “nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Gen. 49:10). Years after Judah’s blessing, his brother Joseph explained that the Messiah (Jesus Christ) would be called Shiloh (see JST, Gen. 50:24), possibly meaning “to be at peace” or “the longed for one.”1 As a descendant of David, who had been promised that his would be the line of royalty (see 2 Sam. 7:12–16), Jesus Christ indeed would be a king—of the kingdom of God.
As time drew near for the birth of the Messiah, the Lord sent Samuel, a Lamanite prophet, to call the Nephite people of Zarahemla, in the Americas, to repentance and to tell them that in five years “cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.
“And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming, … that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
“Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night. …
“And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you” (Hel. 14:3–5).
At the time of Jesus’ birth in the Old World, Judea was ruled by Herod the Great, a part-Jewish son of Antipater, governor of the Roman province of Idumea. Herod had been appointed king over Judea by his close friend Octavian, who was better known by his title, Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Herod’s appointment by Rome troubled many Jews, for the Lord had said that their king should be one “whom the Lord thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren” (Deut. 17:15).
As king, Herod was famous for the most massive construction program in ancient times in the Holy Land. Using Roman engineers, Greek architects, and local laborers, he built several Greek-style cities, with theaters, public baths, temples devoted to the worship of Roman gods, gymnasiums, stadiums, and hippodromes (oval stadiums for chariot racing), the latter three reflecting his love of athletics. An excellent hunter and athlete, Herod had donated so much money to the Greek Olympics that he was named life president of the games. But gladiatorial battles and the nudity of athletes who competed in Greek-style events disturbed Jewish leaders, who charged that the country had been defiled. To soothe their feelings, Herod built a large shrine in the city of Hebron at the burial cave of Father Abraham and his family.
Herod also built magnificent palaces and fortresses. But his crowning achievement, and, he hoped, his memorial, was the rebuilding of the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a masterpiece of white marble, with massive gates of gold and silver. Ten thousand craftsmen and a thousand priests labored for years to complete the project.2
The temple was beautiful, but for years, few if any of its high priests held the keys of the priesthood of Aaron, which were necessary to bestow authority and the sanction of the Lord upon their office. During the period when the Roman Empire controlled the Israelite nation, the office of high priest was a political appointment not affirmed by revelation.3
The man who rightfully held the keys of the Levitical Priesthood was a humble and faithful priest named Zacharias. Joseph Smith taught, “The Levitical Priesthood is forever hereditary—fixed on the head of Aaron and his sons forever, and was in active operation down to Zacharias.”4 Zacharias and his wife, Elisabeth, had not been blessed with children, and were “well stricken in years” (Luke 1:7, 18). The office of high priest was patriarchal; beginning with Aaron, it passed from worthy father to worthy sons, and thus Zacharias hoped for a son.5
To serve within the temple sanctuary was the highest honor bestowed upon a priest. Between 20,000 and 24,000 priests were eligible to serve,6 but that opportunity occurred only once in the lifetime of a man—if his name was drawn. Zacharias had not served within the sanctuary, and he was nearly 50 years of age—the mandatory age of retirement.7
But the day arrived when his name was drawn, and Zacharias had the rare experience of going into the temple sanctuary. Wearing the robes of the Levitical Priesthood, he completed his sacred tasks. As a worthy high priest, Zacharias could rightfully inquire of God’s will and receive a reply, if needed, by the ministering of angels (see D&C 13; D&C 84:19–26; D&C 107:18–20). The Prophet Joseph Smith said that “Zacharias [pled] with the Lord in the temple that he might have seed so that the priesthood might be preserved.”8 We are told that Gabriel, a heavenly messenger, appeared to him (see Luke 1:11–20). When Gabriel lived in mortality, he was the prophet Noah9 who presided over the baptism of the earth.10 Now Noah was about to reveal knowledge of the prophet who would help bring to fruition the law of Moses, or the old covenant.11
“Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
“… Many shall rejoice at his birth.
“For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord. …
“And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.
“And he shall … make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13–17).
Zacharias was astonished to learn that his future son was to be the very prophet who Isaiah said would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (see Isa. 40:3). Zacharias asked, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). Gabriel answered, “Thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words” (Luke 1:20).
His temple responsibilities completed, Zacharias returned to his village in the hills of Judea filled with wonder at the blessings and promises of the Lord. At home he somehow made known to Elisabeth the overwhelming news—that she was to be the mother of a prophet of God.
Nearly 100 miles to the north, in the province known as Galilee of the Gentiles (see Matt. 4:15), a young Jewess named Mary (“Miriam” in Hebrew) lived in an obscure hillside village named Nazareth. Mary was betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. By Jewish custom, their year-long betrothal was considered to be as binding as the vow of marriage.
Six months after Elisabeth’s conception, Gabriel appeared to Mary and said:
“Hail, thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. …
“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
“And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:28, 31–33).
Nephi saw Mary in a vision and described her as “a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (1 Ne. 11:15). Alma testified that Mary was “a precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10). Of her conception, he wrote that she would “be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Alma 7:10). Gabriel explained this to Mary and added, “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
From the angel, Mary learned that her relative Elisabeth—barren during her entire marriage—would also miraculously bear a son, “for with God nothing shall be impossible” (see Luke 1:36–37).
Elisabeth gave birth in the month of Tishri, or October, during harvesttime and the Festival of Tabernacles. With that holiday the Jewish year came to an end. Significantly, John’s future mission would help bring the period of the old covenant to an end, even as the Messiah would introduce a new age and a new covenant upon the earth.
Traditionally, a weeklong celebration followed a male baby’s birth, ending on the eighth day with circumcision performed by a village priest. The practice of circumcision had been introduced by the Lord to the patriarch Abraham. A physical mark of membership among God’s covenant people, it served as a reminder to Abraham and his posterity “that thou mayest know for ever that children are not accountable before me [for baptism] until they are eight years old” (JST, Gen. 17:11).
Following the circumcision, the priest prepared to name the son “Zacharias,” but Elisabeth said, “Not so; but he shall be called John” (Luke 1:60). Sons were customarily named in honor of their father or a relative, but the final determination was up to Zacharias. Since people believed he was stricken deaf as well as dumb, the question was posed to him by signs, “and he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John.” And thus the infant was named. (See Luke 1:62–63.)
At this point, Zacharias’s ability to speak was immediately restored. Cradling the infant in his arms, he blessed John and prophesied:
“And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
“To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:76–77).
John, while only eight days old, was also blessed by an angel. This angel ordained him “unto this power” in his future ministry, “to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord before the face of his people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord, in whose hand is given all power” (D&C 84:28). Therefore, as Joseph Smith taught, “being Lawful heir to the Levitical Priesthood the people were bound to receive his testimony.”12
News of John’s birth and its attendant experiences spread rapidly throughout the hill country, and many wondered, “What manner of child shall this be!” (Luke 1:66).
Not long after Mary returned to Nazareth from visiting Elisabeth for three months (see Luke 1:39–40, 56), Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, became aware of her pregnancy. Having no knowledge of the miraculous events that had brought it about, he anguished over what course of action to take. Then, in the quiet of the night, Joseph was visited by an angel who revealed to him that Mary was to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah:
“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. …
“Then Joseph … did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife” (Matt. 1:20–21, 24).
Many months earlier, Caesar Augustus had ordered a census taken throughout the Roman Empire. It is estimated that Caesar had 55 million subjects.13 Rome’s 30 provincial governors were periodically authorized to conduct a census that would determine how much tax the people should be assessed. Taxes raised were designated to fund imperial projects such as roads, aqueducts, buildings, and armies.14
On the eastern edge of the empire, the 8,000-square-mile kingdom of Judea had a population of about one million Jews.15 Citizens there were ordered to enroll in the towns of their ancestors’ origin, so Joseph was required to journey 90 miles to Bethlehem, the home of his forefathers.16 Although Bethlehem was small, it had been continuously inhabited for centuries.
The annual festival of Passover was an ideal time to conduct the enrollment, since all males were required by Mosaic law to assemble in or near Jerusalem at that time and the ancestral homes of most families were in Judea. Women were not required to attend, although traditionally families celebrated together.17
Since Mary was near the end of her pregnancy, wisdom dictated that she remain in Nazareth while Joseph fulfilled his Passover and enrollment obligation in Judea. Yet Mary accompanied her husband on the journey. Why? Surely inspiration guided the decision so that the ancient prophecy of Micah and others might be fulfilled: the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (see Micah 5:2).
It would have been strange for Joseph and Mary to have traveled by themselves, for the route would have been crowded with friends and relatives headed for Jerusalem and the Passover celebration. Perhaps Joseph secured their belongings upon some donkeys; Mary likely rode upon one of the animals. A straw basket could have held food for the journey, and a goatskin could have held water.
As the travelers approached Jerusalem, they may have been greeted by a sea of goatskin tents pitched in the valleys. Just ahead, thousands of people, along with braying donkeys, bleating sheep, and crying children, would have crowded the narrow streets and byways of the Holy City.
Thousands of miles to the west, Israelites in the Western Hemisphere were about to witness the miraculous phenomenon prophesied five years earlier by Samuel the Lamanite. Yet, as the time drew near for his prophecy to be fulfilled, Nephite dissenters prepared to murder all believers “except the sign should come to pass” (3 Ne. 1:9). The prophet Nephi “cried mightily [all that day] to his God in behalf of his people, yea, those who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the tradition of their fathers.
“… And behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying:
“Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets” (3 Ne. 1:11–13).
That night, Nephites in the New World witnessed an astonishing sight in the heavens, “for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness” (3 Ne. 1:15)—the prophesied sign of the Messiah’s birth.
Passing through Jerusalem and going on to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary applied in vain for space in local caravansaries, or khans, which catered to caravans as well as pilgrims. Courtyards provided space for camels and donkeys to rest and to refresh with water. Rooms were simple roofed enclosures with little privacy; travelers competed for space to spread their blankets on the floors. Because there was no room for Joseph and Mary, even in one of these inns, they took shelter in a stable. Possibly it could have been in one of the limestone caves commonly used for that purpose.
Did anyone assist Mary at the birth of her first baby—a nearby midwife, or perhaps a female member of her family? The record is silent on this point. We can be assured, however, that she was watched over by angels as the Messiah entered into mortal life.
Generally, once an infant was delivered in those times, his skin was washed and cleansed with water, then gently rubbed with salt to guard against infection. Then the infant was “placed in a folded square of cloth, and then wrapped in swaddling bands that restricted movement.”18 Likewise, the baby Jesus was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and placed in a manger for his bed (see Luke 2:12).
That night, a brilliant new star shone in the heavens. Halfway around the world, Nephi, son of Nephi, the son of Helaman, wrote, “And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word” (3 Ne. 1:21). Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Balaam had said in a dual prophecy, “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17), foretelling both the star and the birth of the messianic king. The star was symbolic of the light of Christ: “After long ages of darkness, says the Testament of Judah, an early Christian text discovered among the Qumran scrolls in 1952, ‘shall a star rise to you from Jacob in peace, and a man shall arise like the sun of righteousness, … and the heavens shall be opened to him.’”19
In a distant country east of the Holy Land—perhaps Persia or Babylon—that star was observed by an unknown number of learned men who were familiar with prophecies foretelling its appearance. They were aware that the sign proclaimed the birth of a king who would reign over his people, the Jews. “Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest,” states the Testament of Levi, another early Christian text. “His Star shall rise in heaven as of a king … and the heavens shall be opened.”20
Late March through early April was lambing season, and shepherds may have been laboring in Bethlehem’s hillside fields the night of Christ’s birth, assisting the ewes in the births of their lambs. It is likely that these were no ordinary animals, for Jewish law proclaimed that only flocks designated for temple sacrifice could be raised near cities.21
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David [Bethlehem] a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:9–14).
With the departure of the angels, the shepherds went “with haste” (Luke 2:16) to see for themselves the Messiah, the newborn “Lamb of God, … the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Ne. 13:40) who would grow to become the Shepherd of Israel—and be sacrificed for his flock (see Isa. 53:7; John 1:29; John 10:11, 14–15; 1 Pet. 1:18–20; Alma 7:14; Alma 13:11; Ether 13:11). After their visit, they spread the joyous word of the Messiah’s birth, “and all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (see Luke 2:17–18).
Joseph and Mary obediently followed the dictates of the Mosaic law in naming and blessing this wondrous child. On the eighth day after his birth, the infant Jesus was circumcised and blessed by a priest and, by heavenly direction, named “Yeshua” in Hebrew—in Greek, “Jesus”; in English, “Joshua” (see Luke 2:21).
The Mosaic law proclaimed that new mothers remained ritually impure for seven days following the birth of a male child. After this, 33 days were spent in preparing for purification (see Lev. 12:2, 4–8). During that time, Mary would not have participated in any religious rituals, waiting instead until she and Joseph traveled to the temple and Joseph presented two pigeons to a priest, who offered them as a sin offering and a burnt offering before the Lord. Then Mary would be pronounced “clean” by the priest. What Joseph and Mary did in this instance was according to the scriptural law of the firstborn:
“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
From the beginning, all firstborn males of people and of clean animals had belonged to God, either to offer a lifetime of dedicated service, as in the case of humans, or to be sacrificed: “the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord” (Moses 5:5; see also Ex. 13:12–13; Num. 18:15; Mosiah 2:3). The Lord had saved Israel’s firstborn from death when the destroying angel passed over Egypt and took the lives of all firstborn animals and sons of the Egyptians (see Ex. 13:12–15). Afterward, firstborn sons of the Levites belonged to the Lord for a lifetime of temple service (see Num. 3:12–13; Num. 8:5–26). Nonetheless, fathers of non-Levites were obliged to redeem their firstborn sons and animals by payment of five shekels (see Num. 18:15–16). Thus it is likely that Joseph and Mary presented Jesus to a priest and made the necessary payment for the ceremonial redemption of the firstborn son.
As Joseph and Mary were in the temple with the infant Jesus, they were approached by a devout man named Simeon, who had been assured by the Holy Ghost that he would not die “before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Prompted by the Spirit, he had come to the temple on that day. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God for the fulfillment of the promise. But with his praise, his words to Mary chillingly prophesied of her suffering at the foot of the cross:
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
Also in the temple that day “was one Anna, a prophetess, …
“And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
“And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36–38).
Some time later, Jerusalem received several distinguished visitors from a distant country to the east: the learned men who had seen the star. Gaining an audience with Herod, they asked where they could find the newborn king, for they had come to worship him. Herod was inwardly disturbed at their request but promised to locate the newborn leader. His chief priests and scribes informed him, “It is written by the prophets, that he should be born in Bethlehem of Judea” (JST, Matt. 3:5).
Herod probably concluded that the newborn child was to be a future political leader. He also could have thought that the newborn king was to become the religious leader of the people—a future high priest. In earlier times the high priest had almost total power over the nation. In any event, in view of Herod’s age—he was in his 60s, old for those times—either possibility could have hardly challenged his personal position as king. Yet he could well have believed that this child could pose a threat to his dynasty.
Calling in the Wise Men for a private audience, Herod “enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared” (Matt. 2:7). He then sent his visitors to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also” (Matt. 2:8).
Worship, of course, was far from Herod’s mind. Although he had provided Israel with 30 years of peace and prosperity, he was hated and despised, for his path to power was stained with the blood of many victims. When two of his sons plotted to overthrow him, Herod sought Caesar’s approval to punish them; he then ordered his sons strangled to death.22 On his deathbed, he commanded the murder of another son, Antipater, his appointed heir, believing that Antipater had plotted to poison him.23 Further, Herod had alienated many of the Jews by directing that a large, golden Roman eagle be erected over the great gate of the temple.24 Jews were understandably infuriated—to them the Lord’s temple was defiled. Now Herod was confronted with a child king in Bethlehem, a possible threat to the throne with a nation of potential supporters.
The Wise Men, after hearing Herod’s request, “departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (Matt. 2:9–10).
It was proper protocol to present gifts to a king, so after worshipping the possible new monarch—now a young child—they presented him with three gifts of value—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (see Matt. 2:11).
“And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
“And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
“When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt” (Matt. 2:12–14).
At the time, many Jews—more than the Jewish population in the Holy Land itself—lived in Egypt. Undoubtedly, Mary and Joseph were easily able to find refuge among their own people.25
Angry and frustrated that the Wise Men had not furnished the information he needed, Herod attempted to destroy the child by ordering the murder of all children two years of age and younger in Bethlehem and surrounding communities (see Matt. 2:16).
That order placed John, son of Zacharias and Elisabeth, in grave danger, for his was a miraculous birth also, and prophetic blessings made him a possible candidate in the eyes of some to be the promised Messiah. Whatever happened to John during his formative years is not disclosed in scripture. Surely he was nurtured, protected, and prepared for his role as the forerunner of the Lord.
The carrying out of Herod’s horrible edict fulfilled that which was spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah: “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matt. 2:18; see also Jer. 31:15). Rachel was buried at Bethlehem, and Rama is thought to have been near Jerusalem.
Some time later, following Herod’s death, an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life” (Matt. 2:20).
It is apparent from Matthew 2:22 [Matt. 2:22] that Joseph and Mary had planned to return to Judea either to live or to visit the temple or family members, but as they approached that province they were directed otherwise. They probably also learned that Judea was in turmoil. Thousands of angry Israelites, gathered on the temple mount, had rebelled against Herod’s son Archelaus, his successor, seeking relief from high taxes and unemployment. They demanded freedom for political prisoners and sought to appoint their own high priest to preside over the temple. Archelaus sent squads of soldiers against them, and 3,000 Jews were killed in the ensuing battle.26
Such was the atmosphere in Judea when Joseph and Mary passed by. Warned in a dream, they went instead to Galilee to settle in their former hometown, Nazareth, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23).
How significant and glorious was the long-awaited birth of the Messiah. Small wonder, then, that angels heralded the event. We, too, herald this event. This Christmas season, let us ponder and treasure the meaning of the Messiah’s miraculous birth.